Ramblin' Rhodes: New Oka'Chaffa festival an unforgettable experience

Ray Pena, a master falconer, spins line with plastic "prey" on the end as his 12-year-old Saker Falcon, Chula, swoops in to demonstrate how falcons fly and catch prey during his birds of prey show at the Oka'Chaffa Indian Festival.

History tells us that Native Americans, or Wampanoag Indians or native peoples as you wish, in 1621 joined Plymouth, Mass., colonists in sharing an autumn harvest feast acknowledged as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.


So it seems extremely appropriate this Thanksgiving month that several native peoples and folks of many nationalities came together two weekends ago at the first – and hopefully not last – Oka’Chaffa Indian Festival at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park.

If you missed it, you missed one of the best things to happen to Augusta. Don’t believe me. Ask any of the 7,000 total attendees on Saturday and Sunday (Nov. 10-11). Most of Sunday’s crowd was different from Saturday’s.

One good reason was that veterans on Sunday were admitted free due to Nov. 11 being Veterans Day.

What was the best thing about the festival?

To me, it probably was Ray Pena and his amazing performing hawks and falcons that swooped just over the heads of spectators and landed atop the former feed grain silos at the park’s parking area. Especially fun to watch was his 12-year-old Saker Falcon, Chula, who definitely enjoyed the attention.

Or maybe it was a Cree Indian woman named Katrina Fisher from Canada, who totally fascinated visitors with her hoop dance in which she formed several colorful plastic rings into the shapes of alligators and other such stuff while dancing through the rings.

She also hosted her Indian encampment and talked about various native peoples’ crafts and how she could set up or take down her tall, white tepee in just 15 minutes. This mother of eight children and grandmother was a living history exhibit unto herself and a sweet, nice person as well.

It also was unforgettable watching the faces of hundreds of children and adults with their mouths dropped open as they stood within feet of a real life buffalo named Thunder, or as they watched in awe of the native peoples dancing in their colorful costumes (especially the ultra-energetic Aztec family) and as they held small alligators offered to them by Okefenokee Joe’s close friend Bill Macky.

Those at the festival on Sunday got to celebrate swamp and reptile expert Okefenokee Joe’s 80th birthday two days early.

The festival would not have happened if Joe (formerly hit songwriter Dick Flood in his Nashville, Tenn., days) had not put Bob Young, the president of the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy at Phinizy Swamp, in touch with French-Cherokee Indian Chipa Wolfe of Jasper, Ga.

Wolfe has been putting on powwows and Indian festivals for 20 years with his Rolling Thunder Enterprises.

And what a great emcee and native peoples culture expert Wolfe turned out to be. He was the center of the festival planning in keeping its authenticity and historical perspective alive.

On Veterans Day, he told stories of the many native peoples through centuries who served in America’s military forces and who fought and died to preserve America’s freedoms, including the famous “code talkers.”

He spoke of the clashes between native peoples and early American settlers and explained that most Indians do not care if you call them native peoples or Native Americans or even Indians as long as you respect their culture and don’t use derogatory terms like Indian givers or squaws.

And on top of all the great crafts offered for sale ranging from carved walking sticks to turquoise jewelry, the food vendors did some booming business selling unusual items like buffalo burgers, Indian tacos with beans and alligator meat on a stick.

Native Americans in 1621 in Plymouth were on the right track sharing that autumn feast with the colonists. Because it is through our Thanksgiving and patriotic celebrations and through fun events like the Oka’Chaffa and Blind Willie McTell Music and Oliver Hardy festivals and this weekend’s Chitlin Strut in Salley, S.C., that we come together as Americans and at least for awhile forget our political and racial and religious differences. Such festivals educate and entertain us and bring joy to us in tough times.

I hope that Chipa Wolfe and Okefenokee Joe and Katrina Fisher and Ray Pena and all their friends come back again next year to teach us more about their history and culture and make us all better people.